Crispin Glover's 1989 Novelty Album About Clowns and Screaming

by Mike Barthel

So far in this series on vanity projects, we’ve sampled the pleasant, the sad, and the surprisingly great, but now it’s time to venture into the area most frequently associated with celebrity albums: the desperately weird. Crispin Glover has made a career out of being an elaborate, self-abasing weirdo, and his 1989 album The Big Problem ≠ The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be is his persona expressed in musical form. It came two years after his legendarily off-kilter bewigged appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman,” during which he read aloud his own negative reviews and karate-kicked perilously close to Letterman’s face, at which point the show cut abruptly to commercial. Lest the public think that incident an isolated bit of weirdness, The Big Problem signaled that Glover was very much trying to be this odd, whether that served his career or not. In an era when celebrity personas are either carefully manicured or manipulatively managed, Glover’s insistent him-ness is like a breath of fresh air. But is the album any good?

THE SONGS: Sometimes you download albums and they’re tagged with “Unclassifiable” as the genre, and most times they don’t deserve it. The Big Problem very much does. (Though the version I downloaded from Amazon is somewhat optimistically tagged “Rock.”) There is the industrial song about masturbation that turns into a lounge noodle halfway through; there is the cover of “These Boots Are Made For Walking” that sounds like a dude on poppers doing karaoke after getting punched in the face; there is the one where Glover reads from his book about rat-catching over circus music; and there is the falsetto cover of a Charles Manson song. In general it fits into an art-novelty tradition that includes the KLF, Negativland and Laurie Anderson (Wikipedia wants to call it “Outsider music” but Glover is too much a professional for that classification to stick), but in its specifics it’s both entirely unprecedented and entirely Crispin Glover.

THE PACKAGING: All of Glover’s creative output tends to converge: he writes books and then reads them on his album, his visual art illustrates his prose, his live performances are slideshows of his visual art, he directs movies and presents them along with his slideshow. (This may be the strongest characteristic his work shares with outsider artists.) Here, for instance, you can watch what his website describes as “a clip of a performance of [the] book” What It Is and How It Is Done, which is a reference to the first film he directed, What is It? (The second is called It is fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE. and along with a third film, It is Mine, constitutes “The ‘It’ Trilogy.”) The packaging on the album continues this cycle, mixing lyrics with visual depictions of the lyrics. On the back cover there are two pictures of clowns. Glover also listed a phone number on the case and encouraged people to call if they knew what “The Big Problem” was; dial the number and you’d get an answer machine advertising his books (regrettably, no longer in service).

DID IT SELL? Oh dear me, no.

CURRENT AVAILABILITY: The album was reissued on CD in 2006 and is available for download through all the usual places. Weirdly, though, the album is not for sale in the “books and CD” section of Glover’s Geocities-chic website, which, by the way, despite its name, carries no actual CDs.

SKETCHINESS OF LABEL: Restless Records was a mid-size punk/metal label when they released Glover’s album in 1989, but they’d go on to co-found the Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) with Sub Pop and a bunch of the majors; ADA subsequently distributed many of the indie/alt albums you bought in the post-Nirvana boom. If it doesn’t seem like the label you’d expect a Crispin Glover album to come out on, consider that they also put out They Might Be Giants.

MOST HILARIOUS QUOTE FROM AN AMAZON REVIEW OF THE ALBUM: “If only I were his long lost concubine, I would build a shrine to him. But Never say never to Always. And yes, I know this is not very helpful. I just wanted to give my Lion Lover stars.”

WHO MADE IT: Just as it makes perfect sense for Daft Punk to work with Giorgio Moroder and Chic, the songwriting team Barnes & Barnes were a natural choice for Glover. Like Glover, they were Hollywood lifers (“Art Barnes” is really Bill Mumy, who played Will Robinson in “Lost in Space” and Lennier on “Babylon 5”) who made multimedia art projects pushing a creepy-naïf aesthetic into the realm of grotesqueries. Their Bill Paxton-directed video for “Fish Heads,” above, certainly screams Glover, but their work tilted more commercial, somehow, managing to be comedic more than unsettling, and “Fish Heads” was a minor hit in 1978. (The video first appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and was played regularly in the early days of Nickelodeon.)

WHEN HE MADE IT: As a piece of music, The Big Problem is certainly unusual. But as a vanity album, it’s surprisingly conventional. It came out in the heart of Glover’s career, used a commercially successful producer to create music from scratch with Glover providing the vocals, and was part of a multimedia blitz (books, live performances) by a still-emerging star. If it had seemed at all commercial, we would be accusing Glover of being a sell-out.

His big break had come four years earlier, as George McFly in Back to the Future, and the public soon learned that the gaspy, gawky tics the character seemed prone to were actually aspects of Glover’s everyday mien. The Letterman appearance introduced this side of him, and The Big Problem was part of a general campaign to make sure that image stuck. He gave a similarly off-kilter performance in River’s Edge, and released his books Rat-Catching and Oak-Mot, both of which were Burroughs-esque cutups of public-domain works, unreadable as literature but fascinating as objects.

In the years since, Glover’s become something of an icon for a certain brand of weirdness. Like Johnny Depp playing Ed Wood, he seems too sincere to be sincere, playing the role of “bad actor” in everything he does but still getting work in major projects. He has an entry in Uncyclopedia

, the 4chan Wiki, but you get the sense he wouldn’t be unhappy about that.

THE MUSIC: So what is Glover’s deal, exactly? Sometimes his projects seem like a kind of proto-trollgaze, creating an image that’s incredibly easy to make fun of and then playing into that image over and over again. He’s been through at least three cycles now of alerting a generation to his presence and then doing something intensely weird, the most recent one being his twin 2003 roles in the ultra-mainstream Charlie’s Angels and the ultra-weird Willard. If Glover is totally sincere about all this, his work fails: as straight expression, it’s not pleasing or entertaining or meaningful. And sure, if anything, he’s certainly not sincere. But any interpretation of The Big Problem must answer the boundary question of what he is and isn’t sincere about. Does he really think clowns and circuses are symbols and images freighted with meaning, or does he just think it’s hilarious? Or is he just trying to yick us out? Is it violator art, pushing our buttons through over-the-edge offensiveness — are we supposed to get the impression Glover is a secretly pedophilic serial killer? Or is he just doing a spot-on imitation of the hyper-amateurish, acting-out-your-deep-psychological-issues-in-public artists of the variety that Irwin Chusid has featured on WFMU, like Lil Markie? That’s the point, I guess: the tension between what he knows and what he doesn’t creates the album’s energy.

That’s not really enough to encourage repeat listens. But if you try anything, try his “Boots” cover, which is embedded above. His over-the-top vocal take turns a familiar song into something desperate and new. Unlike the other songs, there seems to be something at stake here; he sounds genuinely heartbroken. It’s hard to get too emotionally invested in rat catching or clowns. Heartbreak, though: that merits all the creepy intensity Glover can muster.

Previously: Ian McShane’s From Both Sides Now, Corey Feldman’s Former Child Actor, Milla Jovovich’s Divine Comedy and Cornel West’s Sketches of My Culture

Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.